Kurkjian honored with 2022 BBWAA Career Excellence Award

Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series
Written by: Bill Francis

That’s one heckuva early birthday present Tim Kurkjian received.

On Tuesday, Dec. 7, Kurkjian was elected the 2022 winner of the BBWAA Career Excellence Award, an honor presented annually to a sportswriter “for meritorious contributions to baseball writing.”

Having covered baseball for more than four decades, the man who turns 65 on Dec. 10 began his sports writing career in the late 1970s but has become a familiar face on numerous ESPN platforms since 1998 as both a reporter, analyst and writer. He will be recognized during the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s 2022 Induction Weekend, which is set for July 22-25. The annual Awards Presentation will be held on Saturday, July 23, at Doubleday Field.

“I cried over the phone when Jack O'Connell (BBWAA secretary-treasurer) called this morning. I couldn't help it,” said Kurkjian in a phone interview only an hour after receiving news of the honor. “It's the most overwhelming feeling I've ever had. It's the greatest day of my whole life professionally. And nobody loves the Hall of Fame more than me. It's such an honor. I can't even begin to tell you how thrilled and honored I am.

“Right now I'm at my home in Darnestown, Md., up in my office by myself. I've already had the big congratulations from the family. And now I'm just trying to figure out what to do next. It’s just so much. It's so good.”

But, according to the longtime storyteller, how he received the life-changing news is kind of a funny story.

“I go to Harris Teeter like every day to do grocery shopping. I'm a terrible grocery shopper, but I go every day and I'm very inefficient. But I was at the Harris Teeter at the self-serve checkout place,” he explained. “I had just put a case of water over the self-serve area and put it in my cart and was just about ready to walk out when Jack O'Connell called me this morning and made me cry at the Harris Teeter. That's how I found out. Which was quite appropriate for my family because they know I go there almost every day. And to have it happen at the Harris Teeter was not exactly my first choice but that's exactly how it happened.”

Born and raised in Bethesda, Md., the University of Maryland graduate began his professional career in 1978 for the Washington Star, then briefly wrote for the Baltimore News-American in 1981 before becoming the Texas Rangers beat writer for the Dallas Morning News. After four years in Texas, Kurkjian returned to Maryland, joining the Baltimore Sun to cover the Orioles for four years. After a seven-year stint as Sports Illustrated’s senior baseball writer, he joined ESPN, where he can be seen on “Baseball Tonight,” “SportsCenter,” “Monday Night Baseball” and “Wednesday Night Baseball.”

“My dad instilled a love for the game in me and my two brothers,” Kurkjian recalled. “My dad was a really good player. And he taught us all how to play. He taught us all how to love the game. He gave us all a feel for the game. My two brothers, Andy and Matt, are in the Hall of Fame at Catholic University for baseball, and I'm the youngest of three boys.

“But baseball was the only language we spoke in my house growing up. And my father was also a PhD in mathematics. He went to MIT undergrad. So my love of statistics also comes from my father. I can't tell you how many times we would just read the Baseball Encyclopedia, just the two of us, looking up Ted Williams stats and Lou Gehrig stats and things like that. So he taught me everything I needed to know about that. And my mother was a great writer and she taught me how to write.”

And whether Kurkjian’s choice of profession was preordained or divine intervention, he acknowledges it’s rather fitting that he went to a high school named after Hall of Fame hurler Walter Johnson, who he considers the greatest pitcher of all time.

“I worked for the school paper called The Pitch and did a little bit of work for the yearbook and it was called The Windup. So I always felt there was a little destiny involved that I went to a high school named after Walter Johnson,” he said. “And not like it matters, but he died on Dec. 10, 1946, and I was born on Dec. 10, 1956. So all these beautiful connections I have with Walter Johnson. That's just another one. So I always felt like it was really cool that a guy who made his career out of baseball went to Walter Johnson High School.”

A pair of previous BBWAA Career Excellence Award honorees shared in their longtime colleague’s joy.

“Tim richly deserves this award,” said Dan Shaughnessy, the longtime Boston Globe sportswriter and columnist who was honored in 2016. “He loves baseball and has had a Hall of Fame career in every sense of the word. He’s great for baseball. And the writers have come up with a perfect guy to receive the Career Excellence Award.

“I knew Tim first in 1978 at the Washington Star. And I believe I was the first to take him over to Memorial Stadium and introduced him around to Earl Weaver and that Orioles team. Tim has never looked back and is totally worthy of this award. It's been nice to see his rise through the ranks and going past the rest of us. I just love the guy and I’m so happy for him.”

Peter Gammons, who has spent time with the Boston Globe, Sports Illustrated and ESPN, was honored with the BBWAA Career Excellence Award in 2004.

“There are few of us who are in the business that have done more for the game than Tim. To me he’s just one of the most special people of my life. We've been very close friends for maybe 40 years,” said Gammons, who said he had tears in his eyes when congratulating Kurkjian over the phone prior to speaking to the Hall of Fame. “But what he’s meant both as a great writer, a tremendous spreader of baseball on ESPN, and just the joy that some of us feel when we go to the ballpark each day, he has been able to put that into words as beautifully as anybody I know.

“One of the things that is so great is that Tim is a great storyteller. He wrote tremendous stories about people and what made them so great. And he appreciated them. I love listening to how excited he gets about certain things and certain players whether it's Cal Ripken or Tippy Martinez or Jim Sundberg in Texas catching up 156 times a year in the 100 degree heat. He is so appreciates players.”

Kurkjian, the 73rd winner of the award since its inception in 1962, will be joining an illustrious list of past winners that includes, among others, Ring Lardner (1963), Grantland Rice (1966), Damon Runyon (1967), Fred Lieb (1972), Shirley Povich (1975), Red Smith (1976), Jim Murray (1987), Wendell Smith (1993), Roger Angell (2014) and Claire Smith (2017).

“To be in the same club with Peter Gammons and Dan Shaughnessy and Jayson Stark and everybody else is just an honor of lifetime,” said Kurkjian, the author of three books on baseball. “This is the ultimate honor for a baseball writer. I have been speechless for the entire morning ever since Jack called me. But I had to just go up into my office by myself. Just to be alone for a while because it's just such an overwhelming experience.

“Something I always wanted to do was to be a part of Cooperstown somehow because I love the game so much. And believe me, I don't have a lot of other skills. I just have a love for the game and that has carried me a long way. And I repeat - it all comes from my father who gave me that love.”

Kurkjian, who admits he’s made dozens of Cooperstown visits over the years, still can’t fathom he’ll be on a stage this summer presenting the most important speech of his professional life.

“Don't remind me because I might faint at the thought,” he said with a laugh. “This will be something that I've never dealt with. I've done a lot of things in front of people in my life and I'm relatively comfortable doing it, but this this will be completely different because this is one of my favorite places in the whole world.

“This is the destination for every broadcaster, every writer, every baseball player, of course. And I'm not sure how I'm going to get through my speech. But I'm going to probably start preparing it today because I really need all six months to get this right.”


Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series